If one were to create a list of the best Superman stories ever written, chances are one would find 2003's Red Son upon it. Written by Mark Millar and published as part of DC Comics' Elseworlds line, it told the tale of a Man of Steel who landed not in Kansas but the Soviet Union of the Cold War era. It's no surprise then that, after the success of the animated adaptation of Gotham By Gaslight, that Red Son would receive such a treatment. Now out on streaming and physical media, how does this Red Son hold up as both an adaptation and as the latest entry in the long-running DC Universe Animated Original Movies series?
From a voice casting perspective, Red Son certainly had things in its favor. Jason Issacs would seem an unlikely choice for Superman at first glance. But as this Superman, the product of being raised in the Soviet system and who goes from propaganda tool to ruler, he is a superb choice. Issacs' performance, as well as the animation, wonderfully captures the trajectory from an idealist to Communist dictator with a growing sense of weariness and, finally, realization. It's an incredible performance and one that anchors the entire movie nicely.
Like with many of the movies in the range before it, Red Son has a wealth of voice talent bringing it to life. Amy Acker nicely plays a different take on Lois Lane than audiences might have expected, as does Diedrich Bader as Lex Luthor, here portrayed with many of his objectionable traits intact even as he becomes the representative of the American way. Vanessa Marshall returns to the role of Wonder Woman and delivers a potent and intriguing version of the character, as does Roger Craig Smith as the Soviet Batman during the middle third of the movie. Elsewhere, the cast is nicely rounded off by the likes of Phil Morris as James Olsen and Winter Ave Zoli as the Lana Lang character. There are even a few real-world Cold War-era leaders who appear, including William Salyers as Stalin, and Jim Meskimen as JFK, which helps in neatly evoking the period. It's a solid cast, to be sure, one which once again highlights one of the strong points of these movies after more than a decade.
Having talked about the cast, what are we to make of the script from J. M. DeMatteis? Unquestionably the task of adapting the critically acclaimed three-issue miniseries into an eighty-minute movie in an unenviable one. Changes would inevitably have to come, ones which would risk losing what made the original Millar comic such an incredible read. And how did DeMatteis equip himself?
In some places, handsomely. Many of the characters are here, from Superman himself to the likes of Lex, Lois, and the Soviet Batman, even if details change a bit along the way. There are echoes, if not always direct lifts, of incidents as well, including the first meeting between Superman and Lois or the knock-down-drag-out fight between the Man of Steel and this insurgent take on the Dark Knight. There are changes, some like those surrounding James Olsen and Wonder Woman, less obvious ones to make, yet ones which add to the piece more often than not.
Where DeMatteis is perhaps less successful is in how he condenses things. Possibly because of the hour and twenty-minute running length, the film also shortens the timeline of the comic. Instead of taking us from the 1950s into the early 21st-century, the animated Red Son sets its events over roughly three decades, sometimes portraying major events in quick snippets of action that loses the connective tissue found in the comic. Whereas things like Justice League: The New Frontier have proven capable of doing this without leaving glaring holes in the narrative, this one isn't quite so successful, especially with the Brainiac subplot that grows with importance in the final act. On the topic of the conclusion, there is a pivotal moment between Superman and Lois that ends up becoming lost and slightly re-purposed, robbing a powerful moment of its power. Elsewhere, Millar's final twist (suggested to him by Grant Morrison of All-Star Superman fame) is left out entirely, leaving a gaping hole at the end.
Are those fatal flaws? Not at all. Indeed, one wonders if those unfamiliar with the source material would even notice them. As someone who often says how important it is to judge screen versions as much on their own merits as anything else, it's worth noting all the strong points of it, including Issacs' superb Superman and the voice cast as a whole. But it's one that, while good, should have been great, though it remains immensely watchable all the same.